Why Brain Research Is Bringing Hope to Drug Addicts

“The neuroscience of the mind” is an area of scientific research that is just now beginning to yield rich and vital insights into the nature of brain chemistry, function, plasticity (ability to adapt to injury) and more. These insights are now affecting how drug treatment is administered, monitored and maintained. For instance, through brain research scientists and treatment professionals now know much more about how drugs interact with various brain systems, including the so-called “reward system,” which is the part of the brain where drug cravings are introduced and reinforced. This research is changing how addicts are treated over the short and long term.

Drugs and Your Brain’s Reward Center

A 2008 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) highlighted that a full 33 percent of the population still believes that “willpower” is enough to kick drug use. Results of recent brain research studies do not agree. With the introduction of substances — including drugs and alcohol — brain chemistry changes. The structure of your brain also changes along with brain function. These changes make recovery stops and starts — commonly called periods of “relapse” — more the norm than the exception. The brain’s reward circuitry interprets the effects of drugs similarly to how it receives other pleasurable stimuli such as food and sex. This sets up brain cravings — in short, the brain wants more. The addict may try very hard to stop using, and may even be at the point where using is no longer enjoyable, and yet the brain still says, “Give me more.” This insight is changing how professionals view the estimated 25 million or so Americans who currently struggle with drug addiction.

Addiction on Multiple Levels

As well, stimulation of the brain’s reward system through drug use sets up the addiction-craving-use cycle on multiple levels — physical, chemical and neural. At a physical level, certain situations, places, people or even memories can set the cravings in motion. At a chemical level, drug use activates the release of neurotransmitters — such as dopamine — that are associated with pleasurable sensations. At a neural level, the nerves continually send out requests for more pleasurable sensations. All of this adds up to a powerful challenge to the addict who is trying to achieve sustained abstinence.

New Recommendations for Effective Drug Treatment

As sobering as these findings may appear, they are even now changing the face of how drug treatment is approached and administered. For instance, in the past most insurance companies have only been willing to pay for what is commonly termed the “detoxification” stage of the recovery process, which represents only the bare minimum of flushing residual drug traces out of the patient’s system. Now, armed with new brain science research results, patients, loved ones and treating professionals are better equipped to lobby insurers to cover the level of long-term, comprehensive, interdisciplinary care that can truly effect lasting change in a former addict’s life.

As well, with recent changes in how public health policy and insurance is administered nationwide, these research findings can support addicts to get the level of treatment they need to stay abstinent.

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